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Relationships in the digital age

Millennial Generation FOMO

Did their parents hand out too many gold stars?

Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) seems to be the common denominator of this endlessly plugged-in generation. Every generation worries about the decisions and swaps they’ll make in early adulthood and life generally, of course—take this job and not the other, leave here and move there, quit this relationship in the hopes of finding a better one—but not with relentless intensity of this Millennial group. 

Technology has amped up the volume and ubiquity of FOMO: the stream of Facebook updates, the texts so you know what you’re missing in the moment, the Instagrams that let you see it and weep.  That brunch/lunch/party you skipped? Here’s Heather, laughing her head off, with a good-looking dude you’ve never seen before. Oh, you didn’t know that Aidan, the loser from high school, raked it in on a public offering? Look—that’s his house in La Jolla. Gee, Lisa got married and just got a book deal off her blog. Whoa, there’s Jen, dancing the night away in Madrid with a very cute guy. She’s a photographer, you know. And Tim? He’s a trader in London.

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As one married 29-year-old with a steady job, who admits to having waves of FOMO wash over her from time to time, remarks: “I know that no one posts their failures on Facebook. It’s all ‘look at me’ self-aggrandizement. Does that stop it from making me crazy? Actually, no.” She confides that she’s dreaming of a big adventure before she crosses the next threshold of adult life—having a kid. 

So there’s a catalogue of FOMO thoughts that flits through the Millennial mind, whether it’s on the Thursday night you’ve decided to stay in or it’s touched off by a random comment on Gchat. OMG.  I am the only single person who will never find anyone. OMG. Everyone is going to graduate school.  OMG. I am bored silly at work. OMG. Everyone else is off on an adventure and I am waiting for the subway. OMG. Will I live with roommates/in a studio/with my parents forever? OMG. I am the only person in Brooklyn/Manhattan/Boston/Seattle/Some Other City who is no closer to getting a real life than I was the year I graduated. OMG. OMG. OMG.

FOMO affects life in both small and large ways for this generation who sleep with their smartphones by their pillows. Millennial social life is both complicated and driven by FOMO since, alas, you can never be in two places at one. Keep in mind that these young people are just now graduating from the hookup culture or trying to, and add a dash of FOMO to the Neophytes-at-Dating scene and you can imagine what happens. Is the grass never greener for these people? Is that why they’re really marrying later? 

Even in an admittedly lousy economy, FOMO keeps the Millennials—those who have jobs, at least—on the move and perhaps keeps others of them gainfully unemployed, rather than do something they don’t like, which would increase their FOMO. According to a Forbes piece by Jeanne Meister, three years in one job is a stretch for Millennials, most of whom decamp within two. FOMO appears to keep them job hopping and bar hopping at pretty much the same rate, and a number of them drop out entirely to follow one dream or another which might otherwise be missed. 

It takes a certain attitude to be driven by FOMO—a certainty that you are destined for bigger things and that something better might be right around the corner. And that pretty much is the Millennial take on life. A study conducted by Net Impact called “Talent Report: What Workers Want in 2012” illuminates the extraordinary grocery list of things this generation wants and expects from a job. Seventy-two percent of them want “a job where I can make an impact” and 65 percent believe they can achieve that within five or six years. Sixty-eight percent want their opinions valued and 74 percent want employers who “share” their values  And did I mention that some 88 to 90 percent, according to this study, want flexible work hours, a good work/life balance, a positive work culture, job security, good compensation, and the “ability to learn and grow”?

Just reading this report is increasing not just my own FOMO but confirming that I Have Missed My Opportunity, as have most people in my generation. Is Millennial thinking optimistic or is it delusional?  Is this just a whole generation yelping “Gimme! I deserve it?” Did someone promise this group a rose garden?

Alas, we did, as parents. They have FOMO because we told them that every opportunity they could think of was theirs for the taking. The Millennials were raised by people who saw the spectre of Potential Loss of Self-Esteem lurking at every corner. Self-esteem was the buzzword of the late 1980s, the 1990s. and into the new Millennium. You couldn’t pick up a newspaper, magazine, or book without reading about it, nor could you avoid it at a parents-teacher conference. Self-esteem began with girls, and then moved over to sweep in boys. Girls, it was said, started losing self-esteem as early as kindergarten. (Confession: I am quoting from a book I wrote with Dr. Nancy Snyderman called Girl in the Mirror, published in 2001.) Is FOMO just the end result of too many gold stars, much too much praise and little, if any, constructive criticism, and an endless litany of parental cheerleading? 

By the way, the Millennial pictured is not normally beset by FOMO.

In my next post, more on the Self-Esteem Bubble.

Peg Streep, author or coauthor of nine books, is a New York City based writer currently working on a book about the Millennial generation.

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